Media updates: On my trip to the Sahrawi refugee camps in Algeria

It’s been a little over a month since I returned from my trip to the Dakhla Sahrawi refugee camp in southern Algeria. The trip was an eye-opening experience in many ways. I’m extremely grateful and thankful for the insight and advice that Sahrawis offered me before my visit, especially Agaila Abba and Aminatou Haidar–two fierce and courageous Sahrawi women who have been generous in the knowledge and kindness they’ve shared with me. I’m also indebted to Aicha al-Burki’s family, who hosted me with open arms, open hearts, and open minds. I reflect on the burden and imposition I placed upon them as a Moroccan, and how they treated me as a member of their own family. The insightful conversations I shared with my host family over meals, the late night conversations I had with their eldest daughter (who’s my age) under the unblemished night sky, and the gifts the young daughters parted me with fill my heart with warmth and a yearning to go back. I’m also grateful for the many Sahrawi refugees who opened up to me with their stories of displacement and struggles.

My trip has only reinforced my view that a referendum allowing for Sahrawi self-determination is necessary and critical in order to begin embarking on the path toward ending the Western Saharan conflict. What strikes me the most after my trip is how people attempt to complicate aspects of the conflict more than they already are, and cite those “complications” as reasons for not discussing it. Without insinuating any reductionism, the crux of the conflict–in my view–remains centered around the deprivation of a population’s right to self-determination.

Below are a few articles I’ve put together that present my humble reflections on my trip:

  • A collection of interviews I conducted with members of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic government, including a number of images on the Huffington Post. Read the article here.
  • My reflections on the marginalization of the plight of Sahrawi refugees on The National. Read the article here.
  • An analysis on the spatial politics of displacement, namely through the construction of Morocco’s 1,600-mile sand berm on Jadaliyya. The analysis includes a series of images and video footage from my visit to the sand berm, which is littered with an estimated 7 million land minds. Read the article here.
  • Video of an interview I conducted with Saharawi Voice on the importance of Sahrawis having their own voice. Watch the video here.
  • An interview I conducted with Spanish paper El Mundo while in the Dakhla refugee camp. Read the interview here [SP].
  • Personal notes from my trip upon arrival to Tindouf and then the drive to Dakhla refugee camp. Read here.
Image from inside the Dakhla refugee camp.

Image from inside the Dakhla refugee camp.

My Interview with Saharawi Voice

While I was in the Dakhla Sahrawi refugee camp, I had the privilege of meeting up with the folks over at Saharawi Voice. We had a little chat about various issues surrounding knowledge production on the Western Sahara. Below is a brief snippet from the interview. Special thanks to the Saharawi Voice team. Visit their Facebook Page here, and support them through a donation if you like the work they’re doing.

(An anecdotal side note: we did this interview while there was an intense sandstorm outside. Below the video is an image of how it looked outside when this was recorded.)

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Part 1: Notes from the Western Saharan Refugee Camps

The view from the plane flying into Tindouf.

The view from the plane flying into Tindouf.

Thanks to the support of the FiSahara Film Festival and the Arab Studies Institute, I spent about a week in the Dakhla Sahrawi refugee camp, about 170 kilometers outside of Tindouf in southern Algeria. I went in my capacity as a freelance writer, graduate student, and activist. During my time there, I stayed with a Sahrawi refugee family and met a number of Sahrawi refugees, international filmmakers, journalists, and members of the Polisario and Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic government.

Going into this trip, I carried with me a series of baggages that weren’t the kind you could measure on a scale. My privilege was the biggest baggage. As a Moroccan-American, I came from two countries who have being powerful actors in the Western Saharan conflict: Morocco, the country that invaded the Western Saharan territory in 1975, and the United States, the country that largely supplies the military and financial aid that allows Morocco to sustain its (violent) presence in the territory. The other baggage I carried with me was my ignorance. Having largely been informed of the conflict through the Moroccan side, I held severe misconceptions that colored my understanding of the conflict and the Sahrawi population in general. Among these misconceptions were that mobility within the refugee camps was severely restricted, that the area surrounding the camp was a hotbed of insecurity and violence, and that my presence in the camps as a Moroccan would trigger negative responses and reactions among the Sahrawi population. I also went into this trip with the overarching anxiety about what the consequences would be for me during my next visit to Morocco and the issues my family living in Morocco would face. Without even having visited the camps, members of my family and neighbors have already been subjected to unannounced visits from Moroccan intelligence services and their incessant questions about me and my work. While I have plenty to recount about the political atmosphere, the conditions under which Sahrawis live in the refugee camps, the role of the Polisario, the socioeconomic realities Sahrawis face, and questions of women’s rights and gender, among others–which I will discuss in forthcoming articles–this post, along with future posts on this blog are meant to focus on my personal experiences. Continue reading